Fragrant Femmes : An Interview With Dawn Spencer Hurwitz

American Indie Perfumers, DSH, Fragrant Femmes, Perfume Interviews

Once you’ve been a perfume fan for a while you may find yourself wanting to branch out to discover  independent, artisanal brands. These are the perfume houses that are often more about the perfume than the marketing. Not that there’s anything wrong with brands who are all about the marketing as perfumery is a business, just like any other. However it’s refreshing to uncover work where the artistry shines through. The United States seems to be awash with artisanal brands and some names keep cropping up time and time again.  DSH Perfumes and the woman behind it, Dawn Spencer Hurwitz is one of these names. Recently I had the good fortune to try a selection of her perfumes and I can tell you without hesitation that Dawn’s work is very, very good. I’ve been sampling her creations with excitement as each perfume feels as though a story is being told while also smelling fabulous. I reviewed Rendezvous, one of Dawn’s most recent creations and a 2016 release. I loved it. The perfume was very evocative for me, a real animalic beauty. I for one am definitely interested in knowing more about Dawn and how she creates so thankfully she has answered a suite of questions via email that I hope you will find illuminating.

What did you do before you became a perfumer?

I started studying perfumery and aromatics (aromatherapy, too) while I was in art school at Boston University, so in terms of my professional career I have always been a perfumer and a painter.  I focused primarily on bespoke perfumery but I started doing consulting and design for other firms and through that process developed my first ‘line’ in 1997.

What lured you into the world of perfume?

I should start saying that I have always loved perfume.  I wanted to wear my Mom’s and Grandmother’s perfumes when I was a small child and saved my allowance to buy perfumes at the local drug store.  However, I never realized that becoming a perfumer was ever an option until much later.  I was living in Boston and sadly, my health was very poor.  I have asthma and severe allergies and I was originally attracted to alternative healing modalities hoping to find some relief from my symptoms AND the medications which also made me ill.

Oddly, as luck would have it, I needed a number of part time jobs while I was in school and a friend of a friend managed a small bespoke perfumery boutique.  I had no experience but I convinced them to hire me based on my portfolio and with the caveat that I would just come in and do the job. And miraculously I did just that.  I actually made a (very simple) perfume for a client on my first day.  After that I was hooked and feel deeply in love with making perfume.  I’ve been studying it, and doing it ever since.  I absolutely love that it is an endless universe with which to explore and create.  What could be better?

I’ve read that you are synaesthetic. What does this mean for you and how does it manifest in your creative process? 

Yes, I am.  When I first started working with perfumes and perfume raw materials I realized that I was able to memorize them very quickly and that part of my process was paying attention to the distinct colors, shapes, textures, lines, designs, and opacity of each of the materials (and finished perfumes).  Since I was a child I had experienced strange shape and color visuals with numbers and sometimes letters but it was never as vivid as when I started working with aroma.  After that, I started noticing that I would also experience ‘smells’ when looking at paintings.  It’s very odd!  But fascinating.  It wasn’t until much later that I learned about synaesthesia and found out what was going on.

As you can imagine, it has informed all of my work from the very beginning.  Luckily, as a visual artist, many times I will see the perfume that I want to create and have a strong ‘body feel’ sense of what I want to say.  So, I formulate in my mind for most of the work and only after I have it nearly complete do I sit to make an actual formulation in a bottle.  I know that the perfume is complete when the design matches the image and body feel.

DSH Perfumes

You paint too. How does your art background influence your perfumed creations?

I approach making a perfume the same way that I would approach making a painting.  All that I have learned about design. composition, shape, color, edge quality… everything… goes into the design of a new fragrance.  I think about perfumes in art terms as well: portraiture (like a soliflore, for instance), landscape, abstraction, modernist, classical, surrealist, etc.   It’s all the same to me.

These days, I like to make paintings and perfumes that reflect each other and even, in a way, are having a conversation.  It’s very interesting.

You live in Boulder Colorado. In what ways does your environment influence your perfumes?

You know, I think that my environment plays the least important role in my work.  My work is with me all of the time in my head, and in my body, but doesn’t feel like a product of my environment.  I love the Rockies and the atmosphere allows me to do what I do.  What I mean is that Boulder is great for my health and it’s a lovely place to be; but I love to reference historical perfumes, and am very much influenced by the classics, and the French style.  What I’m creating couldn’t be more different than what’s happening here in the mountains, aromatically speaking. (With the exception of Seve de Pin and Oeillets Rouges, which were inspired by scents in my garden and yard).

Where do you look for inspiration?

I find inspiration absolutely anywhere and everywhere.  For years I have carried notebooks (and now devices, too) to jot down all of the impressions and design ideas swirling around me.  It could be a movie, music, a book, a name, a sound, an image, a phrase, a poem, shapes, light, color… anything, might show up as a perfume ‘story’.  Right now I am creating / releasing a series of ‘Summer Eau Fraiche’ scents.  The last one that will come out in August was inspired by my 4 year old son’s basketball. (I’m not joking).  🙂

DSH Megan In Sainte Maxime

What sort of feeling did you want to create with your perfumes for your customers?

At first, I wanted to create perfumes that my customers were looking for and just couldn’t find anywhere.  (When I started, only big brand / designer perfumes were available).  And then, I wanted to feel inspired and share the ‘story’ with my clients.  I feel very fortunate that I have a following who understands that perfume is Art for me.  I am much less interested in creating a ‘brand’ than I am in just creating, itself.  I guess that’s why I have ended up with a very large, kind of “encyclopedic” range of perfumes to choose from.  I want to do all styles well and present perfumes that feel different, interesting, sometimes challenging, and always personal to my clients.  I want any of my clients to feel that they can come to me looking for something special and they will find it.

Do you aim to create a certain number of perfumes each year, or is it less structured than this?

It’s MUCH less structured than that.  🙂  It may not look like it to the outsider, but I actually edit down how many perfumes I will make each year.  In a funny discussion recently with a fellow perfumer I mentioned that at the end of 2015 I started writing a list of all of the perfumes that I hadn’t produced yet that I’d like to for 2016.  When I finally finished and looked the list there were 42 perfumes (!).  Of course, that’s crazy.  So, I try to edit and plan. And then I may just get some idea that burns so hot in my mind and body that I have to bump something else to the “back burner”, so to speak, and get right on that idea and launch it as it flows.  It’s really a deep seated NEED.  It’s very unlike most perfume businesses… I run my world like an art studio.  It all comes when it comes.

Dawn's Flowers

What are your favourite smells in nature? Man made? Childhood?

I have so many favorite smells!  I love the smell of trees (linden, sycamore, pine, maple, oak) and I love most flowers (roses, tuberose, gardenia, stephanotis, osmanthus, lilies, carnations, violets).  And melons. And berries. And honey. And peaches.  And LEMONS!!   Oh, I could go on.  Many of these smells are favorites developed in childhood.  I love the smell of stony cellars and old books.  I love animalic smells (although I am a vegetarian). There really aren’t many natural smells that I don’t like (dog poo and ‘death’ excluded).

I like a fair number of aroma molecules, but many man made smells I dislike intensely: like gasoline and diesel.  And modern laundry products (!!!!!!).  And honestly, ambroxan.  But I do love hedione.  And cedramber.  And the wood ‘acetates’, isoraldeines, and ionones.    I guess that’s why I tend to use so many naturals in my work.

What perfumes and perfumers inspire you?

I am a HUGE fan of Edmond Roudnitska, Francois Coty, Jacques Guerlain, the House of Molinard, and Germaine Cellier.  I should add Ernst Beaux to this group as well.  I love so many of the classic perfumes.  I’ve been collecting long enough that I have started a small perfume museum to honor the fragrance art form.  I wore Chanel no.5 as a freshman in high school… but now prefer Cuir de Russie, and Bois des Illes.  I have worn Mitsouko, and Jicky (one of my all time favorites).  I have worn Madrigal and Habanita.  I swoon every time I take a whiff of my extrait de La Fuites des Heures  de Balenciaga or wear Jolie Madame by Germaine Cellier.  The incredible Dior perfumes and Rochas fragrances by Roudnitska continually amaze.  Coty’s Chypre, La Fougeraie au Crepuscule, and his original 1911 Ambre Antique are truly beguiling.

All of these and more inspire me.  I aspire to their greatness and can only hope to do so well.

Which perfumers do you feel like you have an affinity with in terms of how you create and what is created?

I am not really sure how to answer this question.   I would love to say some of my heroes from the above question but I don’t think so – at least in terms of how AND what I create.  I know that many perfumers have synaesthesia, and I know that many work in their heads. But some are very business oriented (servicing a specified segment) and some are very materials driven.  I just do what I love.

Dawn Studio

Have the preferences of your customers changed over the years? If so in what way?

Yes.  Trends change and I regularly get requests from clients asking for ‘my take’ on any new trend, but as I have developed a reputation for more vintage-inspired, classical, and natural perfumes, I have found that many of my new clients are looking for these kind of perfumes. Or just something new, different, and artistic.  Because I really try to do all styles, I like thinking that I have something for everyone.  Well, except if you are looking for something REALLY STRONG, or detergent-y, or very sweet.  I do gourmands but try not to cross the line with sweet.  I guess what’s really changed is the diversity of tastes.  Nowadays I can do a friendly, light and appealing scent one month and the next month do a more avant-garde, fierce concept.  Both will find their followers.

Which perfume of yours do you feel closest to and why?

I really don’t have a favorite of my own collection, but I do tend to wear some more than others.  Rose Vert just feels very comfortable and easy to wear (and I love chypres).  Minuit is still a beloved child; my favorite of my Orientals on my own skin.  Mata Hari because it’s downright delicious.  Tubereuse in the summer as the heat makes it really sing.  Scent of Hope touches my heart.  Parfum de Grasse is filled with fond memories of my honeymoon. But in all honesty, I usually am wearing whatever I am working on and testing at any given moment.  I rarely wear perfume for my own pleasure…maybe once or twice a month.

How do you see your range evolving?

It might seem impossible that there are ‘holes’ in my range but I am always finding designs that I haven’t created that I would like to.  i like that I don’t feel pinned down into one style of another; I need to feel free.  After years of struggling with the idea that ‘this isn’t how businesses done’ (i.e.:  the making too many perfumes), I’ve finally just embraced my eccentricity.  I see my work revolving more and more around the multi-sensory art making but I will always be looking at the classic and being inspired.  I think that I will always just follow my muse.

A huge thank you to Dawn for answering these questions and if your interest is piqued, please take a look at the DSH Perfumes website to find out more about her perfumes.

Notes : Images all from Dawn Spencer Hurwitz. The flowers and bottle of perfume are from Dawn’s Instagram account. 

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